On the wrist of a corpse, a symbol of Ukrainian bravery

KYIV, Ukraine – The body pulled from a pit in Izium was in a state of severe decomposition, the skin peeling from the bones and discolored. But one thing stood out: the blue and gold bracelet around the dead man’s wrist.

The colors of the Ukrainian flag are hardly faded.

The corpse, one of hundreds unearthed after Ukraine recaptured Izium from the Russians this month, is another reminder of the barbaric damage of the war. But the bracelet conveys something different: resilience and personality amid a grim scene of mass death. And it seems to send an almost defiant message: Ukraine is alive, even if some of its people don’t.

The image quickly captured the nation’s imagination.

It has been widely shared on Facebook and the telegram messaging app. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, wore a similar bracelet on his wrist when he spoke at the United Nations Security Council on Thursday as proof of Russia’s atrocities.

“I wear one too,” he said, referring to the bracelet. “And Russia should know one thing,” Mr. Kuleba said. “It will never be able to kill us all.”

When Oksana Sova saw the image, she noticed something else. The bracelet looks like the one her children gave to her husband, Serhiy, in 2014 when he first went to war for Ukraine. She looked at the whole picture of the body, examined the tattoos, and for a moment knew it was him.

“Serhiy’s most recent tattoo is of a samurai with a sakura branch above him,” she said in a phone interview Thursday while collecting his remains. “Samurai is a warrior who goes to the end. And sakura is a symbol of hope and recovery.”

Her husband, she said, had the spirit of a samurai.

On Friday, Ms Sova buried her husband, this time in a proper funeral in their hometown of Nikopol in southern Ukraine.

Serhiy’s is one of 338 bodies recovered from the mass grave in Izium as of Friday, according to Kharkiv prosecutor’s office. They included 320 civilians and 18 soldiers like Serhiy. The Ukrainian army recaptured the city two weeks ago, the most striking success of their offensive across the northeast that smashed Russian forces.

Oleksander Filchakov, chief prosecutor for Kharkiv region, on Thursday said there are 445 graves in the cemetery where Serhiy was excavated. In some pits, he said, four people were buried at once. A large number was pulled up from the ground with mine and explosion wounds.

“There are also signs of torture,” he said.

He said he expected excavations at one site to be completed by Friday but investigators would then move to other burial sites they have located in the city.

For months, Ms. Sova thought she would be one of many Ukrainians left to wonder what had happened to a loved one, suspecting her husband was dead but never being sure.

The last time she spoke to him, she said, was on the morning of April 19.

Serhiy, 36, described to her how Russian planes bombed their position outside of Izium. Russian artillery was attacking them from all directions and Russian tanks were closing in. He said that they were decimated and that 6 of his comrades were “two hundred”, military jargon killed.

They were ordered to stand their ground and he told her he would obey the order. Then the line died.

About a week later, she asked the military command and gave them a DNA sample. She was informed that his body was not found at the last known location of his unit and that he was officially declared missing.

Every day for five months, she said, she would search for images from the morgue. She hoped that perhaps he had been taken prisoner; After all, the others were caught and survived, she explained. Why not Serhiy?

The couple married 15 years ago and she still calls him her soul mate. He trained as a cytologist – a dog breeder and trainer – and they ran the small business thanks to their love of canines.

They have two children: Marat, 14, and Elina, 9.

In 2014, after the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine by Russia, he was deployed to fight against Russian-backed separatists and joined the 93rd mechanized brigade, known as “Kholodny Yar”.

Marat has just entered first grade and his daughter is only one year old. When he went to the front, they gave him a bracelet in the colors of the national flag, his wife said.

He never took it off. He wore it while fighting in the battles in Pisky and outside the Donetsk airport. After a year he was discharged from the army and returned to civilian life. But he still wears the bracelet.

Credit…via Oksana Sova

On the eve of the Russian invasion, like so many other former soldiers, Serhiy re-enlisted and began training to become a combat medic. But when war came, he was rushed to the front to defend the northeastern border of Kharkiv province.

“You know, he was always very persistent,” his father, Oleksandr Sova, 60, said in an interview. “Many times I tried to tell him to leave the army,” but to no avail. “So I had to accept his choice.”

The last time he spoke to his son was in April, when Serhiy asked him to look after his home, wife and children.

“I’ll do it anyway, but why would he ask?” he say. “I had such a heavy premonition. And then the connection was lost”.

Mykhaylo Onufrienko, a soldier who has known Serhiy since 2003, joined his family in the search after he went missing. They often scroll through Russian social media to scrutinize images of captured or killed Ukrainian soldiers.


Onufrienko said: “I looked at passport photos and identification documents of him and his comrades,” I think he was taken prisoner. “In another photo I could recognize him with his hands bound and a bag on his head. They certainly interrogated and tortured him, I’m sure he never said what they wanted to hear. So they killed him.”

Serhiy’s wife also believes he was captured and tortured.

The coroner’s report said Serhiy died of a gunshot wound, but the pathologist was unable to give a time of death. So the family doesn’t know for sure whether he died on the battlefield or was taken prisoner and then killed.

But he was found.

His former colleagues, military comrades and residents stood by his grave on Friday afternoon. Despite heavy shelling during the night and early morning near Nikopol, Many people have come to see Serhiy resting, his wife said.

“It was tough for all of us, but we all stood firm, as Serhiy did all his life,” she said.

The bracelet, however, was not buried with him. It remains in Izium, evidence in the criminal investigation of his death.

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